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Posted on 14 May 2024 in Fiction | 0 comments

CAMERON STEWART Why Do Horses Run? Reviewed by Ann Skea

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The protagonist of Cameron Stewart’s novel finds solace in solitude as he walks through Australia, encountering both kindness and cruelty.

NOW I EAT ROADKILL. When I’m desperate for food I drag dead animals off the road. Rabbit, kangaroos, goannas – as long as the carcass hasn’t stiffened, if it still flexes, then it’s edible. After gutting them, I check for parasites. I roast bits of meat on the end of my knife or on green sapling sticks. Ravens cook well on embers.

It is clear from the start that something traumatic has happened in Ingvar’s life. He has no destination in mind, just ‘a vague notion to walk towards the coast … to stay on the move. To remain stationary was to dwell and he didn’t want that.’ For three years now, through all weathers, he has walked across Australia. He is determined, too, to stay silent, and if he needs to communicate with anyone he writes notes. He also keeps a diary, and through the pages of this we gradually get to know him and, eventually, we learn what caused him to choose this way of life.

As much as possible, Ingvar avoids main roads, highways, and other people, taking old roads cut by ‘wood haulers and timber cutters in the early years of settlement’, and ancient tracks across the ancient land, which often lead to ‘a waterhole or a good place to camp’. In his diary, he writes:

Last night I walked north along a back road, and tectonic plates and Tasmanian tigers entered my mind. The moon cast a bright glow, the air was cool and I must have covered thirty kilometres before dawn. I can walk for hours without thinking of much. Some days are completely blank. But last night I thought of how I was walking north over land that was itself moving south.

He thinks of continental drift, the breakup of Gondwanaland, and the time when ‘Tasmanian tigers, or thylacines, roamed the entire region’. And he remembers the last known Tasmanian tiger, held in captivity until, ‘On 7 September 1936’, it died in its concrete cage. His memory of the exact date hints at his knowledge of extinct species and the career he once had documenting extinction and ‘the collapse of life’. His daughter, Lotte, whose voice Ingvar hears as he walks, reminds him of things they did together, and how he would come home from field trips and bring her something ‘like a fossil or a piece of quartz’. Lotte’s favourite object was a piece of amber:

yellow, like the eye of a cat, and trapped inside was a wasp that looked like it had been flying around yesterday. There were tiny air bubbles. You told me that amber was a window into time.

Ingvar now carries that piece of amber around with him, and it soon becomes clear that he is mourning the death of his daughter. The real cause of his trauma, however, is not revealed until later in the book.

In the years that Ingvar has been walking, he has survived searing heat, icy winds and rain. He notices ‘the remnants of rainforest’, the ‘flutter of honeyeaters’, the boulders that hint of ‘the savagery of past floods’, and the ‘hints of human habitation’, but

the moments around dawn, when the air was cool and the rising sun leaked into the hem of the dark night and the shadows peeled away and birds took flight, when the landscape shimmered and hinted at something new, these were the best moments of the day.

His encounters with people, however, are less idyllic. He has faced abuse from teenage louts, ‘had fruit and rubbish thrown at him’, been ‘spat on’, been threatened by drunken ‘pig or roo shooters’, and accosted by a half-crazy man metal-detecting in a derelict ghost town.

After a bout of fever, he reaches the ocean, ‘as far east as the continent would allow’, and walks into a valley that seems ‘oddly familiar’ to him.

Ingvar wasn’t sure what he was looking for when he started up the valley but when he finally stopped walking hours later he felt he’d found something. He dumped his rucksack on the ground and crossed the bitumen road. As he climbed a steep driveway he thought of the girl throwing rocks into the river and the teenagers who taunted him on the bridge. Don’t be a fucking weirdo.

The property he comes to is owned by Hilda, an old woman, a widow, ‘tough and lean with a hint of something softer’. She is suspicious of Ingvar but agrees to let him stay for a few days in the old banana shed at the bottom of her driveway. Hilda is rough and plain-speaking. She has been left to manage ‘Col’s domain’ (‘the two-hundred acre farm ran seventy head of cattle, including one bull’), tackling alone the feeding and watering of the cattle, the drenching, tagging, transport and sales, and everything else to do with the farm. ‘I’m too bloody old for this,’ she thinks as she rounds up a young heifer that has broken through a fence, and her conversations with her dead husband are gritty: ‘Where the hell are you when I need you, Col?’ and ‘Christ almighty Col, thanks for all the fun!’ Col’s infidelities are a frequent topic in Hilda’s antagonistic conversations with him. As she surreptitiously watches Ingvar washing in the creek, she hears Col’s voice:

Don’t ask him about his past. Men don’t like to answer questions about their past.

Referring to yourself?’

‘You playing that game again?’

‘Put a sock in it, Col.’

Ingvar’s stay in the banana shed is brief but eventful. He does some work around the farm as repayment for staying there; is attacked by Hilda’s nephew, who thinks he is a threat to his inheritance of the farm; meets some interesting and colourful locals; and gets to know, briefly, the teenage girl, Ginger, who lives in the A-frame (which he recognises) across from Hilda’s property. Eventually he takes off again, spending some time fruit-picking, because he is running out of money. The orchards are not what he had expected:

I’d imagined orchards set among rolling green hills like you’d see on the cover of a children’s book, but this farm was spread over a thousand flat acres of red dirt, crisscrossed with roads and irrigation channels. The farm was its own little town … Three barracks, built from concrete blocks, lined a cleared area of red dirt like cauterised scars.

Arriving in 40-degree heat, he is handed a canvas bag and a ladder and put to work straight away. Eventually, Ingvar has had enough of fruit picking and ‘of other humans’ and he returns to the banana shed. Hilda recruits him for collecting ticks – the large female ones she can sell to laboratories for making tick serum. It is a lucrative occupation – ‘a bit like panning for gold’, she tells him. Later she removes a tick from his neck and he feels obliged to speak: ‘Thank you’ is all he can manage. After this, he writes a long account of the reason for his trauma, and leaves it at the house for Hilda to find.

Still feeling unable to reconcile himself with a past for which he feels responsible, Ingvar takes off again. What happens next is dramatic and the results are unexpected. So, too, are the events which bring this novel to its close.

Why Do Horses Run? follows a mentally distressed man as he walks and walks, day after day, through season after season, in order to forget. That may not sound interesting, but Ingvar is acutely aware of his surroundings and he brings the beauty and changeability of the land to life. The people he meets, the dangers he faces, and, especially, the voices of Lotte and Hilda, make the book absorbing reading. And it is hard to resist the beauty of passages like this:

One morning I didn’t get up. I lay in the snow grass on my back and unpicked my matted hair as the sun crept up my blanket. The sky seemed immense. Close enough to touch. I watched the changing shape of clouds. Dragons into dogs. Castles into ghosts. I’ve never had opium but this was how I’d imagine it. The odd bird flew overhead but the only sound was the wind. And silence.

As Cameron Stewart’s first published novel, this a rich, often funny, and moving exploration of the complexity of human nature, and of the acceptance of difference and the unexpected generosity of strangers. He creates some memorable characters who are full of life and energy and, at the same time, he writes feelingly of the beauty and fragility of our world.

Cameron Stewart Why Do Horses Run? Allen & Unwin 2024 PB 320pp $32.99 

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Why Do Horses Run? from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

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